(CNN) — Buyers around the world have been snapping up dilapidated Italian homes at rock-bottom prices in the past few years as countless populous towns and villages try to revive their declining communities by offering property deals.
While the prospect of significant infrastructure upgrades, along with the red tape often involved in buying a home in a foreign country, may be off-putting for some, others have jumped at the chance.
Of course, every buyer will have a different vision for their new renovation project. Some prefer to keep things as simple as possible, focusing on making the home livable again while keeping costs down.
And there are those who decide to go all out.
Masood Ahmadi and Shelly Spencer, the first to complete renovations on an abandoned house in the Italian town of Sambuca di Sicilia, fall into the latter category.
Masood Ahmadi and Shelly Spencer bought an abandoned house in the Italian town of Sambuca di Sicilia in 2019.
The couple, from Montgomery County in the US state of Maryland, were among those demolishing a historic residence in Sambuca, deep in the heart of Sicily, after local authorities put 16 abandoned houses up for auction at a symbolic price. Euro — about $1.
“It was love at first sight,” Spencer tells CNN. “Sambuca is very clean, with beautiful old stone pavements reminiscent of it [Washington, D.C. neighborhood] Georgetown and the street lights at night are so romantic.”
He was thrilled to find his €10,150 (about $10,372) bid for the 100-square-meter palazzo had been accepted and quickly set to work to dramatize the property.
Two years later, and well ahead of the three-year deadline imposed by the local authorities, their Italian hideout is complete.
Ahmadi and Spencer, who both work in global development projects, spent about $250,000 to transform the dilapidated property into a stately home, which they say “looks like a Renaissance home.”
They plan to split their time between the US and Italy, spending half of the year in their two-bedroom home, with their daughter and grandchildren.
The renovated house has beautiful marble bathrooms, but its standout feature is undoubtedly an indoor elevator that the couple uses to move up and down its three levels.
So did they decide to have an elevator complete with security cameras and phones installed in the property?
Addition of elevator
The couple installed an indoor lift inside their 100-square meter palazzo.
“We want to grow old here, do yoga every day and sip coffee on the terrace with a view of a misty lake,” explains Spencer.
“So we thought about bypassing all those narrow steps to feel as comfortable as possible and not having to go up and down four winding stairs several times a day.”
While a quarter of a million dollars may seem like a large amount to spend on this type of project, they believe it is actually less than the amount spent on something similar in the US.
However, the indoor elevator is certainly not a fixture exclusive to homes in this small town, and its attractive interior design has caused quite a stir among locals.
The couple says they have received visits from various residents eager to see the transformation of this once dilapidated building up close.
“The locals welcome us with cake, and come to my house curious to see what we’ve done with the ruins,” says Spencer, before revealing that they were recently gifted a “nice bottle of sherry” at a local bar.
Apart from the elevator, the house has a lounge area, a guest suite, a master bedroom and a living area with a modern open kitchen.
There are also several balconies as well as a large terrace that overlooks the mountains and Lake Arancio, located near the ruined Arab fort Fortino di Mazalakkar.
Ahmadi and Spencer say they were initially handed a €5,000 (about $5,100) deposit as part of the purchase agreement, which stipulated that renovations be completed within three years.
They spent $250,000 renovating the house, which has a living area with an open-plan kitchen.
The pair is currently enjoying a lovely summer in Sambuca. In the morning, they take their elevator to the ground floor to enjoy a morning cappuccino and pastry at a local bar. Then they go for a walk, before returning home to work remotely for a day.
“With the alarm system and surveillance cameras, it’s a much smarter home than it is in the US,” adds Spencer, explaining that they are able to manage alarms and devices at their US property from Sambuca.
After buying their new home, they proceeded to buy an unused 100-square-meter section of their neighbor’s house for €5,000, which they renovated and attached to their property.
“We love the peace at Sambuca,” says Ahmadi. “Our street is very quiet and we enjoy the slow-paced lifestyle philosophy of the city, symbolized by the snail sculpture in the main piazza.”
While some travelers choose to use Sicily as a base to explore more of Italy as well as the rest of Europe, the couple focuses on exploring the region.
They have already visited the city of Marsala in the province of Trapani and the salt pans of Trapani, and like to take long journeys along narrow country roads to visit local food markets and try various delicacies, including snails.
“In the US, highways are everywhere. But here there is no rush,” says Masood. “Slow travel allows us to indulge in gorgeous scenery.
“Driving just nine kilometers and passing through the hills, it takes us about two hours, but that’s what makes the adventure special”.
Although they were able to complete the renovation in a relatively short time, which is particularly impressive considering the various issues brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic, there were a few minor problems along the way.
Squeezing their furniture through the tight doors and windows of their 300-year-old palazzo proved to be the biggest challenge (the sofa went up in a lift) and finding the right furniture was also time-consuming.
“As Americans we have access to a lot of stores in the States, where we can buy things at all kinds of prices,” says Spencer.
“But finding good quality fine furniture that you really like here in Sicily can be a problem. You need to know where to find the best traditional wood pieces, antiques and second-hand stores. Also, some pieces are in catalogs. Also available No.”
Although the building’s structure has been renovated, they decided to keep the gold-colored ragged stone walls, majolica tiled floors, and vaulted ceilings with the original windows to preserve some of the historic elements of the house.
Masood and Spencer also chose to keep some of the items left behind by the previous owners, which they discovered during their first visit, including a 1967 calendar that still hangs on the walls.
His house in the Saracen neighborhood remains one after the devastating 1968 earthquake in Sicily’s Bellis Valley was abandoned and devastated the area.
The town hall was flooded with interest from hundreds of foreign buyers after 16 homes were offered in 2019, and 10 more buildings were auctioned in 2021, this time for a symbolic €2.
While some of the participants in the second auction bought their house sight unseen due to Covid-19 related restrictions at the time, Masood was able to travel to Italy with his brother in 2019 to view and inspect the property. The Sicilian town is ahead of their bid.
“Along with my husband I sent my daughter-in-law on a research mission to see what the town was like,” says Spencer.
“He is an engineer and said that despite the earthquake, the foundations of the village and houses in Sambuca are very strong.”
It took the couple just two years to transform the dilapidated property into a lavish home.
Masood is very grateful that both the sale and the renovation went very smoothly, explaining that the town hall helped with paperwork and legal issues, helping to overcome the language barrier.
While he points out that they had to apply for an Italian fiscal code or social security number, and open a bank account in the country before buying a home, which meant the process wasn’t entirely “painless”, he’s happy with how things are going. . Gone overall.
“In the US, I have to deal with subcontractors myself, but in Sambuca it was much easier,” says Masood, who oversaw all the work with the architect.
“I was lucky to find a good architect and I contributed to the electrical work, designing the location of the lighting fixtures.”
The couple was impressed with the quality of work by local tradesmen and builders, saying it was far superior to anything they had encountered in the US.
“The Italian craftsmen are incredible,” says Spencer. “It’s amazing how they turned this place into something new. It was a shell, now it looks like a Renaissance house.”
However, the final bill came as a shock to them, as they had no idea that 10% VAT would be added to the cost of the building.
Before embarking on the renovation of their Italian home, Massoud and Spencer were repeatedly warned about the risks involved in buying and renovating a large home abroad.
But they say they had full confidence in the Sambuca housing scheme, which aims to support local economic development, and are thrilled with the end result.
“I can pinch myself,” Spencer says. “We were really lucky. I could tell you a lot of nightmares, but I won’t, because it all worked out. Better than that in a small town in the States.”